DeKalb County School District
As an elected official and active community participant, I am regularly asked about our collective vision for the city over the next quarter century. Any answer to that question should include doing what it takes to build and maintain a high-quality infrastructure that will last well into the future for the benefit of all citizens, both today and the next generation.
One important component of our municipal infrastructure extends beyond the basics of repaving, intersection improvements, storm water systems, parks and public safety. The critical piece I’m referring to is our public schools.
Parents have an obligation to educate their children. While the public school system is not the only avenue for that education, it is an important foundation block that helps define a high-quality city.
When the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools issued its earlier warnings and more recently, the probationary status to the DeKalb County School District, many Dunwoody residents (parents of school children and empty-nest homeowners) all realized a critical threat to our infrastructure had been breached.
These accumulated warnings not only served as a wake-up call for many in Dunwoody, but also as a catalyst for Dunwoody City Council to push the exploration of an independent school district for Dunwoody to the top of Council’s 2013 legislative agenda.
Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) shouldered the responsibility of creating and submitting House Resolution 486 to allow new cities to form their own school systems. This resolution may open the door to the creation of a Dunwoody school district as a potential solution to possible accreditation failures and improving the quality of public education for every student in Dunwoody.
Representative Taylor’s resolution was further supported by City Council when we agreed in principle to allocate up to $50,000 to help fund a feasibility study of a Dunwoody city school system.
This is a positive step forward in helping achieve our vision, but the road ahead on this initiative is long and filled with many obstacles to overcome. The earliest a new school system could be created would be well after any student now in high school graduates.
City Council’s legislative agenda and Representative Taylor’s introduction of HR 486 coincided with the formation of the community 501(c)3 Dunwoody Parents Concerned About Quality Education – concerned parents and residents who are similarly passionate and concerned about the state of our schools and our control over their fate. We must explore and exhaust all our available options.
As an elected leader and parent of a Dunwoody High School sophomore, I am part of a community neither willing to wait idly on the sidelines, nor gamble that the remote possibility of uncontrollable events will not occur.
In addition to the city partnering with Representative Taylor and citizens forming exploratory organizations, I have also worked with the Dunwoody High School Council and other influential individuals to make inroads with Interim Superintendent Michael Thurmond as well as several newly-appointed school board members.
Specifically, these outreach requests are about securing optional, dual accreditation of Dunwoody High School to provide a safety net for our graduating high school students to protect against the worst case scenario of SACS.
DeKalb college-bound students need this additional protection. Securing approval from the superintendent and/or school board on this optional, additional accreditation for DeKalb County high schools, including Dunwoody High, is critical.
We strongly believe that all DeKalb high school communities, through their school councils, should pursue optional, additional accreditation on a single-school basis, such as through the Georgia Accrediting Commission. No central office funds or central office involvement is required, beyond the superintendent’s approval allowing the high school principals to proceed, for this to happen.
As this optional, single-school accreditation involves only local high schools, it will not interfere or impede the broader school district governance issues under way with SACS. Plus, it is not uncommon for schools across the state to hold more than one accreditation.
Our schools are important – for economical, personal and societal reasons. Schools help form the foundation of young minds and provide the tools for future generations of leaders. A high-quality school system also leads to improved economic development in our business areas and supports property values for all in the city.
While what we are in the process of accomplishing is daunting and inherently challenging, this mirrors why we became a city four years ago. We wanted local control over our very precious resources. That is why it’s important to act now and together pledge to affect relevant and considerable change.
Not too long ago many residents and politicians said city government couldn’t “really” affect the schools. I’m happy to say that this City Council and its individual members are working hard to change that paradigm. And that change will help us all realize a vision for achieving the high-quality infrastructure we expect.
Terry Nall is an At-Large member of Dunwoody City Council. He is a CPA and a financial services industry executive.
The great news is that people in Dunwoody are deeply engaged in the issues affecting quality public education in our community. Dunwoody Talk, one of many local blogs, engaged in a discussion about the pros and cons of the charter cluster option, one of several considered in the community.
Knowledge is power. And getting up to date information about the various initiatives keeps us all in the loop. Here’s what DunwoodyParents.org had to say in response to posted questions and concerns (read the entire response by clicking the link below):
We are pursuing multiple avenues for Dunwoody educational independence. These are not separate groups with competing agendas. And, rather than sabotage each other, these two initiatives are actually complementary. Let us explain why.
Getting the legislature and the voters of Georgia to give us the opportunity to form our own school system is a long process with a very uncertain outcome. Our state reps have told us that this is a huge mountain to climb and that we shouldn’t put all of our eggs in this basket. That said, we are fully committed to pushing forward with this as the ultimate goal.
It is worth noting that in the hearing on Representative Taylor’s constitutional amendment that took place in the House subcommittee on Education on March 20, one of the skeptical members of the House asked us why we hadn’t pursued a Charter Cluster designation and pointed out that state law already provided a mechanism for granting autonomy. Our chances of success in the House improve if we can point to attempts to avail ourselves of the avenues that already exist.
Those of us working on the Charter Cluster concept are agreed that the governance model must include a structure that has the Cluster non-profit corporation as the employer of the teachers and principals. We will not be satisfied with, or push for approval of, a Charter Cluster contract that does not give us true educational autonomy. We must have (as you put it) a checkbook. The Cluster needs to be able to hire educators, reward great ones, and remove lousy ones. The DeKalb teachers in Dunwoody will have a tough decision about whether or not to leave the County’s employment and accept jobs with the Cluster. We expect the good ones to welcome the change, which will be empowering and rewarding.
We don’t know if we can get five members of the new DeKalb Board of Education to give us this autonomy, but that is what we will ask for. If they say ‘no’, then we have an answer for the skeptics in the Legislature.
We need to make three other points. First, the community discussion and work that would be required to submit a petition to the County for a Charter Cluster is the exact same effort we would have to undertake to start our own school system. Getting community-wide work groups together to define what—and how—to teach in an autonomous Dunwoody must be done regardless of whether or not we are asking the County for a Charter Cluster or the Legislature and the State Board of Ed for an independent system. Everything we put into a Charter Petition is reusable when we get our own system.
Second, our current efforts to submit a Letter of Intent are entirely non-binding. We are not committing the community to anything, only trying to secure an opportunity for us to decide whether or not to pursue a Charter Cluster Petition. We will only go down the petition path if there is strong community support, but to get to that point, we need a Letter of Intent.
Allegra Johnson (President)
Robert Wittenstein (Steering Committee Representative)